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Amid a Pandemic, Olympic Committee Postpones Summer Games Until 2021

Delaying the Games for a year is considered by many to be the best course of action for public health

The Games will now take place in the summer of 2021. (Carl Court / Getty Images)
smithsonianmag.com

After much deliberation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan has confirmed what the world has been expecting for weeks: The 2020 Summer Olympics will be postponed until next year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, report Motoko Rich, Matt Futterman and Tariq Panja for the New York Times.

The news comes a day after International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Dick Pound told USA Today’s Christine Brennan that a delay was essentially inevitable.

“The parameters going forward have not been determined,” said Pound on Monday. “But the Games are not going to start on July 24, that much I know.”

Pound’s comments arrived close on the heels of a jarringly different announcement from the IOC. On Sunday, the governing body’s executive board stated that the committee would “step up its scenario planning” for the Tokyo Olympics and was planning to take the next four weeks to weeks to make an official decision, per Tanya Chen of Buzzfeed News. This more cautious wording, which remains the organization’s official stance on the issue, left room for alternatives, including a scaled-down—but on-schedule—event.

After Abe asked IOC president Thomas Bach for a one-year delay on Tuesday, however, Bach “agreed 100 percent,” according to the New York Times. The Games will now take place in the summer of 2021.

Postponement by months or a year has long been considered the most likely outcome, reports Dan Roan for the BBC. Many believed delaying the Games was the option that would most effectively protect the millions expected to gather to celebrate the sporting event in July. After the IOC’s Sunday announcement, several Olympic committees, beginning with those representing Canada, declared they couldn’t safely participate in on-schedule games and would withdraw. By Monday evening, Australia’s committee, as well as the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, had echoed similar concerns.

Complete cancellation—which hasn’t happened since World Wars I and II, which quashed the Games in 1916, 1940 and 1944—was never really “on the agenda,” according to a press release.

The IOC has been considering its decision for weeks, all the while simulating the costs and logistical hurdles associated with various scenarios, according to Rick Maese, Adam Kilgore and Simon Denyer of the Washington Post. The decision to postpone is not one made lightly: It will inevitably throw countless plans into flux, requiring new venue reservations, modified training schedules, renegotiated advertising deals and an array of other changes.

But such drastic measures have now become the norm as the world scrambles to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

As British Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston tells the BBC, “The health and safety of athletes, sports fans and officials due to work at the Games is absolutely paramount.”

Olympic medalist and World Athletics President Sebastian Coe expressed similar sentiments in an open letter to Bach.

“No one wants to see the Olympic Games postponed, but as I have said publicly, we cannot host the event at all costs,” Coe wrote. “I believe that time has come and we owe to our athletes to give them respite where we can. And in this matter, I believe we can.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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